Compendium: A Reading of Oswald Spengler’s Prussianism and Socialism (Part II of IV)

Frederick the Great, First Servant of Prussia

Prussia, as a political entity in the world, was dissolved by the Allied Powers in the opening stages of the Cold War. Its territorial claims by West Germany ceased in what can only be described as the Faustian bargain. Prussia was sacrificed to facilitate “German Reunification” with East Germany under the 2+4 Agreement (“Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany”).  Thus, it becomes seemingly logical to claim that Prussianism perished alongside Prussia on 12 September 1990. But this is not the position which Spengler touted when he described Prussianism in Section III:

I should like to make clear what I mean by the term ‘Prussianism.’ The name, of course, refers to an area of Europe where certain attitudes took on impressive shape and began to evolve. But Prussianism is, first and foremost, a feeling, an instinct, a compulsion. It is the embodiment of spiritual and intellectual traits—and that means also of certain physical qualities—that have long since become the distinguishing characteristics of a race, or rather of the best and most typical representatives of this race. Certainly not every person born in England is ‘English’ in the racial sense; and not everyone born in Prussia in genuinely ‘Prussian.’ This word denotes everything we Germans possess by way of destiny, will, inner drive, and ability, and nothing of our vague ideas, desires, and whims. There are true Prussian types in all of Germany—I am thinking of men like Friedrich List and Hegel, of certain inventors, scholars, engineers, and organizers, but especially of a particular type of German worker. Since the Battles of Rossbach and Leuthen there have been many Germans who in the depth of their souls have harbored a small strain of Prussianism, a potential source of energy which can become active at great moments of history. As yet, however, the only real Prussian achievements have been the creations of Frederick William I and Frederick the Great: the Prussian state and the Prussian people.

Every supreme reality begets later realities. The Prussian element is again making itself felt in the Germans, or rather in the German type, of today; it is gradually reducing the effectiveness of outmoded ideologies. Although the best Germans are not aware of it, Prussianism, with its combination of realism, discipline, energy, and esprit de corps, is a great promise for the future. At the moment, the German people, indeed every individual German, is threatened by what we have dubbed “the German Michel”—the hodgepodge of faded beliefs which we often think of as ingenuous, but which really are useless or even dangerous for Western civilization.

Friedrich List

It is noteworthy that Spengler mentioned Friedrich List, a man whose ideas were inspired by the writings of Alexander Hamilton, as being an example of Prussianism. Prussianism transcends beyond the geographical and historical contexts of Prussia and survives in spite of the dissolution of Prussia as a political entity. The same can also be said for the American strain of Prussianism, whose presence can be discerned from the pro-Hamiltonian faction within the Federalist Party. This is an important observation as the Federalist Party also had its pro-Jeffersonian faction centered around James Madison. Today, the Madisonian Tendency, of which the Madisonian “Federalist Society” is a definitive example, continues to govern contemporary politics alongside the James Monroe Tendency.   

What led to the demise of the Federalist Party was the “Great Divergence” between Madison and Hamilton over the roles of the Presidency and Congress with regard to “Public Opinion.” Hamilton, true to the Prussianism (as Spengler would later describe), denounced the concept of Public Opinion as being demagogic for anonymous powers with Kapital can manipulate the American people into favoring policies that are not conducive to the national interest.

Since Liberal Capitalism, the “English instinct” continues to be more prevalent in today’s world, the following passages are devoted to the more important characteristics of Prussianism:

Service—that is the style of Old Prussia, similar to that of Old Spain, which also created a people by engaging in knightly warfare against the heathen. Not “I” but “we”—a feeling of community to which every Individual sacrifices his whole being. The Individual does not matter; he must offer himself to the Totality. All exist for all, and all partake of that glorious inner freedom, the libertas oboe dientiae which has always distinguished the best exemplars of Prussian breeding.

Among the political attitudes that prevail in Germany today, only socialism has the potentiality of inner value and integrity. Liberalism is for the simple-minded, for those who like to chat a great deal about things they can never achieve. That is how we Germans are; we cannot possibly be like the English, we can only be caricatures of them—and that we have been often enough. Every man for himself: that is an English idea. Every man for every other man: that is the Prussian way. Liberalism, however, means “the state for itself, and every man for himself.” That is a formula impossible to follow unless one is willing to take the liberal course, which is to say one thing while being dead set against its opposite, but in the end to let the opposite take over anyway.

The Prussian style of living, in contrast to all this, has produced a profound and vigorous rank-consciousness, a feeling of unity based on an ethos of work, not of leisure. It unites the members of each professional group—military, civil service, and labor—by infusing them with a pride of vocation, and dedicates them to activity that benefits all others, the Totality, the state. Such a feeling of solidarity within each group finds symbolic expression in words: at the top level there are Kamaraden [“Confidant”], in the middle Kollegen [Colleague], and at the bottom, but with the same sense of pride, Genossen [Comrade]. The bond of unity at all levels is a supreme ethos of dedication, not of success. The distinguishing feature of membership is rank, not wealth. The captain is superior to the lieutenant, even though the latter may be a prince or a millionaire. The French used the term “bourgeois” during their Revolution to underscore the ideal of equality, but this corresponds neither to the English nor the German sense of distance in social relations. A feeling for distance is common to both Germanic peoples; we differ only in the origins of the feeling. When a German worker uses the word “bourgeois” he means a person who, in his opinion, has merely obtained a certain social rank without performing any real work—it is the English ideal seen from the German perspective. England has its snobs, Germany its title-seekers.

The centuries-old feeling of group solidarity in both countries has brought forth a magnificent conformity of physical and mental attitudes, in the one case a race of successful businessmen, in the other a race of workers. One important symbol of this process, albeit an external one, is the English taste in men’s clothing. England has produced civilian dress in the purest sense: the uniform of the private individual. Their fashion holds unopposed sway in all of Western Europe. England has clothed the world in its uniform, the symbol of free trade, private fortune-making, and “cant.” The counterpart of this English style is the Prussian uniform. It is an emblem of public service, not of private existence. Rather than symbolizing the success gained by diligent activity it stands for that activity itself. “I am the first servant of my state,” said the Prussian king whose father had made the wearing of uniforms a customary practice among the nobility. How many have fully understood the significance of the phrase “the king’s mantle”?

To the Prussian way of thinking, the will of the individual is subsumed under the will of the totality. The officers’ corps, the members of the civil service branches, August Bebel’s army of workers, and ultimately the German Volk of 1813, 1870, and 1914 have all felt, willed, and acted as a suprapersonal unity. This is not just herd instinct; it is an expression of sublime strength and freedom, something which the outsider can never understand. Prussianism is exclusive. Even in its proletarian form it rejects the workers of other countries together with their egoistic pseudo-socialism. Servility, snobbishness—these are words for attitudes that are understood and despised only when they degenerate. The genuine Prussian despises no one; but he is himself feared.

A sharper contrast is hardly imaginable. Work, for the pious Independent, is a consequence of the Fall; the Prussian regards it as a Divine Commandment. Two interpretations of the nature of work are here at odds with each other: work as business and as vocation. Let us contemplate the sound and sense of these words. “Vocation” means “calling”: a call from God Himself. In this view, work is in itself morally good. To the Englishman and American, moral success is contained in the goal of work, in success, money, wealth. Work is merely a path toward these goals, to be chosen with special consideration of its comfort and security. Obviously, conflict is unavoidable on the path to success, but the Puritan conscience can justify any means. Whoever stands in the way is simply pushed aside—individuals, whole classes, whole nations. That, after all, is the will of God. It is easy to see how such ideas, once applied in real life, can bring a nation to the very greatest heights of achievement.

In order to overcome man’s inborn lethargy, the Prussian socialist ethic maintains that the chief aim of life is not happiness. “Do your duty,” it says, “by doing your work.” The English capitalist ethic says, “Get rich, and then you won’t have to work any more.” There is doubtless something provocative about this latter motto. It is tempting, it appeals to very basic human instincts. The working masses of ambitious nations have understood it well. As late as the nineteenth century it produced the Yankee type with his irresistible practical optimism. The other motto is forbidding. It is for the few who wish to inject it into the community and thus force it upon the masses. The first maxim is for a stateless country, for egoists and Viking types with the urge for constant personal combat, such as we find in English sportsmanship. It implies extreme independence of mind, the right to gain happiness at the expense of all others, as long as one’s strength holds out—in other words, scientific Darwinism. The other, however, is an expression of the socialist idea in all its profundity: the will to power, the struggle for happiness, but for the happiness of the totality, not of the individual. In this sense Frederick William I, and not Marx, was the first conscious socialist. The universal socialist movement had its start with this exemplary personality. Kant, with his categorical imperative, provided the movement with a formula.

Among all the peoples of Western Europe these two are distinguished by a rigid social hierarchy. This is a sign of their drive for dynamic activity. It puts every individual in the precise location in which he is needed most. Such an ordering is the result of a wholly unconscious and involuntary conservation of energies. It is natural and proper to a particular people only; no other people, no man of genius or ever so powerful will can possibly re-create it. It is an expression of the people’s fundamental moral and ethical attitude. Centuries are required for the clarification and realization of this special feeling for social structure. The Viking spirit and the spirit of the medieval knights are apparent here also: the ethos of success and the ethos of duty. The English people is structured along lines of wealth and poverty, the Prussian along lines of command and obedience.

The meaning of class distinctions is thus completely different in these two countries. In an association of independent private citizens the lowest class is the group that has nothing; in a true state the lowest class is the group that has nothing to say. In England democracy means the possibility that everyone can get rich; in Prussia it means that the existing ranks are open to everyone. Within the structure of Prussian society the individual receives his place according to his ability, not according to the demands of tradition.

For us, the controlling factor of society is the interplay of command and obedience in a strictly ordered community, be it state, party, officers’ corps, or civil service. The member of any one of these communities is a servant of that community. Travailler pour le roi de Prusse—that means doing one’s duty without giving oneself up to corrupt notions of private profit. The wages paid to Prussian officers and civil servants since the days of Frederick William I have been ridiculously small when compared to the sums required to belong even to the middle class in England. But the Prussians have worked harder, more selflessly, and more honestly. The real compensation for this work is rank. It was the same in August Bebel’s party. This workers’ state-within-a-state did not want to get rich, it wanted to rule. During their enforced strikes these workers starved often enough, but in the interest of gaining power, not for higher wages. They struck in support of a philosophy that was supposedly or actually opposed to that of their employers. They struck for a moral principle, and a defeat in their battle could ultimately mean a moral victory.

The sublime term “free trade” is part and parcel of Viking economics. The Prussian, i.e., socialist term would be “state control of the exchange of goods.” This assigns to trade a subordinate rather than a dominant role within the complex of economic activity. We can understand why Adam Smith harbored a hatred of the state and the “cunning beasts called statesmen.” Indeed, government officials must have the same effect on tradesmen as policemen on burglars and naval cruisers on the crews of pirate ships.

Later in Section III, Spengler’s rhetorical opposition toward Liberal Capitalism almost mirrors rhetoric more definitive of the Cold War than the interwar period between World Wars I and II:

Thus we find two great economic principles opposed to each other in the modern world. The Viking has become a free-tradesman; the Teutonic knight is now an administrative official. There can be no reconciliation. Each of these principles is proclaimed by a German people, Faustian men par excellence. Neither can accept a restriction of its will, and neither can be satisfied until the whole world has succumbed to its particular idea. This being the case, war will be waged until one side gains final victory. Is world economy to be worldwide exploitation, or worldwide organization? Are the Caesars of the coming empire to be billionaires or universal administrators? Shall the population of the earth, so long as this empire of Faustian civilization holds together, be subjected to cartels and trusts, or to men such as those envisioned in the closing pages of Goethe’s Faust, Part II? Truly, the destiny of the world is at stake.

All of these characteristics of Prussianism serve to differentiate those of Socialism from those of what passes as such under Liberal Capitalism. Part III will focus on the relevant passages from Section III about the English origins of Liberal Capitalism. It will also include a foray into why Spengler believed Marxist Theory cannot be considered definitive of true Socialism insofar as Prussianism is concerned.  

Categories: Compendium, Economic History, Philosophy, Politics

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